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FSA report bashes organics – again

Date Published: 29/07/2009

Once again the Food Standards Agency has managed to garner a boat load of silly season headlines for a report on organic food that tells us little but is likely to damage sales.

“No additional health benefits of organic food” is the gist of the coverage of this latest publication by the FSA. It’s the kind of headline that many people will take at face value – and that’s a huge shame.

The report is an analysis of a variety of studies from the last 50 years on organic food and nutrition. However, you could argue it’s flawed in a number of ways, not least because it deliberately ignores any study that doesn’t have an abstract in English. Given that a lot of work has been done by researchers outside of the UK, particularly elsewhere in Europe, this could lead to big holes in it.

In fact, look at the title: Comparison of putative health effects of organically and conventionally produced foodstuffs: a systematic review.

“Putative”. Take a look at this definition. It means “supposed”. So they’re comparing “supposed” health effects, not scientifically proven ones???

Now take a look at this from the report’s own executive summary:

In conclusion, because of the limited and highly variable data available, and concerns over the reliability of some reported findings, there is currently no evidence of a health benefit from consuming organic compared to conventionally produced foodstuffs.  It should be noted that this conclusion relates to the evidence base currently available on the nutrient content of foodstuffs, which contains limitations in the design and in the comparability of
studies.

So, what they’re saying is they have compared “limited and highly variable” data and they have concerns over the “reliability” of some of the findings. And there are “limitations” in the way some of those studies were designed and can be compared.

In addition, we’d say this report is somewhat unfairly jumping the gun. Very thorough research now being done will show some very clear nutritional benefits of organic food, maybe even by later this year. You can already read about some of the findings from the QLIF project here (in an article from 2007!). But of course by then the damage will have been done, if it hasn’t been already. As I write, this story is the ‘most emailed’ and second ‘most read’ on the BBC News website. That’s no doubt an awful lot of people getting this very negative message.

In essence the FSA has published a report that tells it nothing it hasn’t already said publicly. We can only hope it will find the funds to revisit this topic when we have heard from the very extensive, Europe-wide Quality Low Input Food study, currently under way and led by Carlo Leifert, at Newcastle University.

It’s not even that we’re being prickly and defensive for the sake of it here. If there are really no nutritional benefits to organic food (unlikely), and we can be told that as a fact, fine. But please, Powers-that-Be, don’t damage an already disproportionately credit crunch-affected sector with what can only be seen as a premature report based on, by the author’s own admission, unreliable data.

Organics does not sell itself on nutritional benefits. The key points of organic food and farming are that it has animal welfare at its heart, protects and enhances the finite resource that is our soil, doesn’t rely on chemical inputs or routine antibiotics for animals and has clearly proven benefits for wildlife. The FSA itself even says on its website:

“Eating organic food is one way to reduce consumption of pesticide residues and additives”

Of course we can argue until we’re blue in the face about the real benefits of organic food and farming. The truth is that the headlines alone will damage the livelihoods of hard working organic farmers and food producers. The FSA has an awful lot of power and responsibility in this respect. We wouldn’t ask it to sit on a report just because it was negative, but perhaps more thought should go into what it studies in the first place. Looking back at 50 years of data is going to skew anyone’s results. Science has moved on in just the last five years and will tell us more than we have ever known about organic food in the next couple of years. Perhaps they could have waited while a major project was completed?

Roll on the day that good, strong, scientific evidence emerges. It will.